Adolescence: A Period of Transition

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Chapter 3: Methodology

This chapter deals with theoretical issues related to epistemology and methodology – the assumptions about the nature of the world, the purpose of research and the construction of knowledge that underlie the current research. The first section of this chapter draws on ideas from community psychology and action research with a focus on the implications of undertaking research that has the dual aims of producing knowledge and bringing about change. The second section describes the development of the current research including key areas of inquiry and a general overview of methods. More detailed descriptions of specific methods are provided in Chapters 4 and 5.

Community Psychology and Action Research: The Scholarship of Engagement

The broad fields of community psychology and action research directly inform the approach taken in the current research. This type of research, while by no means ‘mainstream’, has become more widely recognised, as suggested by the establishment of division 27 of the American Psychological Association the ‘Society for Community Research and Action’ (SCRA). Community psychology takes an ecological view focusing on the relationships and goodness-of-fit between people, communities, and wider society with a focus on goals of empowerment, social justice, health promotion, and problem prevention through collaborative research and action (Orford, 2008; Rappaport, 1977; Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA)). The term ‘action research’ in some ways describes itself, at its broadest level it is research that places equal priority on the goals of producing social change and producing knowledge (Reason & Bradbury, 2008). Proponents of action research argue that the production and utilisation of contextually relevant knowledge through collaborative action in real-world situations is the most useful undertaking for social science (Greenwood & Levin, 2007). These two approaches to research can be related to a broader concept termed by Boyer ‘the scholarship of engagement’ (Boyer, 1990, 1996; Van de Ven, 2007). Essentially, the scholarship of engagement calls for an increased emphasis on the role of universities and of research as a “vigorous partner in the search for answers to our most pressing social, civic, economic and moral problems” (Boyer, 1996, p. 144). This section will articulate some of key concepts that recur across broad traditions of ‘engaged scholarship’ that shape and guide the current research – for example, reflections on the purpose and process of research, the role of values in the research, where research actually happens, and the relationships between the researcher and participants.

The purpose of research.

There is growing awareness of “research designed to meet community needs by generating innovative knowledge of effective change-producing strategies … that are feasible, sustainable, and affordable in ‘real world’ settings” (Kurtines et al., 2008, p. 234). This focus on feasible, sustainable and affordable change can be contrasted with more traditional approaches to research where the key goal is to produce reliable and valid knowledge with a high degree of generality. In this sense action research prioritises ecological validity above external validity; that is, the importance of local relevance outweighs that of global relevance (O’Leary, 2005). At the same time, action research should be conducted with enough rigour that findings regarding the specific context of one project can be generalised to other similar contexts (Dick, 1993).
The current research aims to contribute to both theory and practice. Theoretical implications of the research relate to the potential and challenges of utilising a PYD approach with at risk adolescents as introduced in the previous chapter. Also, issues around participant selection in the context of the one PYD programme examined in this research may well have relevant implications for other situations. However, the main impetus for undertaking the research came from the interest and a level of concern around the issue of exclusion within the programme itself as described in Chapter 1. This dual focus on utility as well as knowledge has a fundamental impact on the ‘basic facts’ of the research – from developing questions, choosing participants, developing relationships with these participants, all the way through the processes of data collection and analysis.

Relationship between action and research.

Central to the process of action research is that the dual purposes of action/social change and research/knowledge production are pursued simultaneously and reciprocally drive one and other – knowledge guides action and action produces knowledge (Greenwood & Levin, 2007). In this sense action research can be related to experimental research designs. Both use current knowledge to devise action – either in the laboratory or the community – and based on the outcome of this action refine their current knowledge. The reciprocal relationship between learning and action is elegantly illustrated by models of experiential learning. Kurt Lewin (1951) was a major
contributor to the development of both experiential learning models and action research. There are multiple models describing experiential learning is described, the most well known is that of (Kolb, 1984) which involves four key stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. However, a simplified version is more often cited in practical settings and provides a good heuristic for the process of research (see Figure 5). Action research can be conceptualised as consisted of iterative cycles (imagine a spiral) of planning, action and reflection through which knowledge and practice is refined (Dick, 1993).
The current research utilised a similar ‘experiential’ format on both micro and macro levels. On a micro level multiple full cycles were undertaken, planning in the form of identifying questions and possible sources of information, action in the form of information gathering and reflection in the form of analysis leading into and influencing further similar cycles. On a macro level, the project as a whole formed a part cycle of reflection and planning undertaken with the PYD organisation involved. Although constraints of time and resource meant undertaking the full action phase was unfeasible within the current reported project, change and in particular a focus on improvement was central to how the research was conceptualised.
Writing with regard to feminist action research, Reinharz describes an approach termed ‘demystification’. Within a demystification framework “researchers believe that the very act of obtaining knowledge creates the potential for change because the paucity of research about certain groups accentuates and perpetuates their powerlessness” (Reinharz, 1992, p. 193). This fits with the concept of ‘consciousness raising’ popularised by Freire (Reason, 2001). In a sense the current research acted to ‘spotlight’ exclusion leading to a greater awareness and critical approach to dealing with the issue which ultimately has an effect on practice. For example, by asking programme directors how they made decisions about who to exclude it is assumed that not only will they provide information reflective of that process, but through this act of reflection their actual practice will be shaped.

Relationship between values and research.

A view of research in which knowledge production and action are inseparable emphasises the values laden nature of research. Research that involves the “purposive, goal-orientated modification of reality evokes disputes of the role of value in social scientific research” (Oquist, 1978, pp. 143-144). In contrast with an orthodox scientific view of research (discussed further below) the current research holds that values are central to all research undertakings in social science. Essentially, this is because the questions of interest to social science and particularly to the ‘helping professions’ tend to be moral, ethical and value laden (Rappaport, 1977). Given the inevitability of research being situated within a system of values and belief, the options are for these values to be either explicitly stated or implicitly assumed. The active and transparent examination of the role of values allows research consumers to assess the influence these have on the research process, quality and relevance.
Three core values guided the current research: First, an emphasis on community service and respect for FYD and Project K as positive social institutions. Being of benefit to FYD and Project K was a goal that influenced the decision to undertake the research in the first place as well as many decisions along the path to its completion. A second key value position was a view of rationality as desirable. In other words an assumption that well informed, conscious and logical decisions are desirable; and that even if perfect rationality is impossible, considered action is preferable to unexamined approaches, even when both are equally well meaning. Related to this is an emphasis on openness to practices (FYD’s, Project K’s and my own) and understandings shifting based on new information. Third, was the idea that minimising exclusion and maximising access to either Project K or other, equivalent resources and support was desirable.

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The ‘location of research’.

A dedication to the aim of doing research that is useful has direct implications for where research happens. The issue is famously articulated by Schön:
“In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the application of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solution. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern. The practitioner must choose. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to prevailing standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamps of important problems and non-rigorous inquiry?” (Schön, 1987, p. 3)
If research is going to generate solutions and information that is useful in the ‘swamp’ it may be that the research actually needs to be undertaken within that setting. Essentially, this is because the degree of reduction and abstraction required for controlled experimentation means findings are of limited applicability in the context of the multi-dimensional, open system that is the ‘real world’. Thus, both community psychology and action research advocate that researchers must move out of the laboratory – and even out of the university – and engage with the communities and situation they seek to study and to serve. In doing so, researchers actually become a part of the situation in question.

Implications for researcher-participant relationship.

Both action research and community psychology emphasise the importance of collaborative relationships with participants. Indeed such relationships are central to some conceptualisations of action research; for example, participatory action research. O’Leary (2005) discusses relationships with participants in terms of a continuum between research ‘on’ others, research ‘for’ others, or research ‘with’ others. The current research falls somewhere between research ‘for’ and research ‘with’. In particular, being responsive to the degree and nature of involvement that the FYD wanted to have with the research was important. As an organisation FYD is going through a period of rapid growth with several significant developments underway concurrently. Therefore, while the issue being researched was of interest to FYD, it was also important that participation in the project did not over burden staff or the organisation as a whole. Essentially, there was a need to balance communication and involvement with minimising the demands of involvement and avoid an overemphasis on the a priori importance of active participation in all phases of the research perhaps more reflective of the researcher’s values (and the requirements of an academic thesis) than the needs or desires of the stakeholders of the research.
This discussion of research-practitioner relationships and the previous points about the research location essentially focus on the need to be responsive to the complexities and dynamic nature of local-contexts and relationships. A key implication of this is that the design process in engaged research needs to be flexible and even emergent, adjusting to new information throughout iterative cycles of planning action and reflection. As noted by Beer and Walton: “Change is not brought about by following a grand master plan but by continually readjusting direction and goals” (1987, p. 356).
Assumptions about reality and knowledge construction.
So far this chapter has focused on the implications of holding change as a key goal of research alongside a more typical focus on producing knowledge. In the course of this discussion, several points related to ontology and epistemology have been touched on. At this point I turn to focus on such issues more directly, clarifying the assumptions about reality and the construction of knowledge that frame this research. I intentionally choose not to simply align myself with one established position because of the variation in the way in which different terms are understood, however, threads of pragmatism and critical realism are referenced in this discussion.
Ontology and epistemology are extremely complex philosophical concepts with a plethora of relevant well developed debates. I make no attempt to comprehensively review perspectives on such issues in social science. However, because “particular philosophies are not simple and self-contained but exist through their oppositions to a range of alternative positions” (Sayer, 1992, p. 5) I will outline a simplified version of what I term ‘orthodox science’ and then discuss my own approach in relation to this. I use the term orthodox science to encompass positivist empiricism and related approaches that are adapted from the basic sciences and endorse methods such as controlled experimentation, statistical analysis of carefully observed relationships, and detached theoretical supposition. Within an orthodox scientific approach there is an underlying assumption that there is ‘mind-independent’ reality that is both observable and rule bound and therefore ultimately predictable (A. Fisher, Sonn, & Evans, 2007). The approach to knowledge construction under such assumptions emphasises the importance of objectivity and therefore separation between researcher and phenomena under study (McEvoy & Richards, 2006; Sayer, 1992). Knowledge production is explicitly separate from the application of that knowledge within this framework. Attempts to change the phenomena under study within the research process would therefore be viewed as bias.
There are significant strengths in the orthodox approach to science, particularly in terms of its level of rigour leading to replicable findings. Furthermore, it is an approach that has enabled significant and useful advances in social science. Two examples particularly relevant in the field of youth development are: first, behavioural research that outlines principles of operant learning – most obviously the principles of reinforcement and punishment as described in any undergraduate psychology textbook (e.g., Carr, 2006); and second, longitudinal studies that identify risk and protective factors (e.g., behavioural epidemiology; Sallis et al., 2000). These two fields of research underlie much of the previous chapter. Despite these impressive achievements there are also some important limitations to the orthodox approach to science. First, as social scientists a lot of what we are interested in is difficult or perhaps even impossible to directly and/or reliably observe (Sayer, 2000). An example from this research would be the way in which programme directors actually make decisions about exclusion. Second, phenomena of interest may also be dynamic, contextually situated, and even actively constructed – essentially situated within a multi-dimensional open system with reciprocally influential relationships between people and the environment (Maritza, 2001). So, to continue the example, decision making may change over time and situation with different considerations relevant in different programmes at different times. Furthermore, the very act of discussing decision making may involve participants actively formulating the process rather than passively reporting what happens. Components of such complex systems taken out of their contexts are likely to function differently, and results from research that requires a high degree of abstraction risk becoming irrelevant to the original complex context, and thus of limited utility (Jason, Keys, Suarez-Balcazar, Taylor, & Davis, 2003).

Project K and the Foundation for Youth Development
FYD-UOA Collaboration and Ongoing Research
The Starting Point for the Current Research
Adolescence: A Period of Transition
Key Concepts in Adolescent Development
Exclusion Criteria: Definition, Prevalence, and Impact
Problem Focused Approaches: Prevention and Intervention
Positive Youth Development
Positive Youth Development and At-risk Adolescents: Potential and Challenges for Integrating
Participant Exclusion x
Community Psychology and Action Research: The Scholarship of Engagement
The development of the current research
Quantitative Perspective
Qualitative Perspective
Conclusion and Limitations
Expert Interviews
Rethinking the ‘Programme’ Solution
Dissemination and Developing Recommendations
Summary of Findings
Integrating Young People At-risk as a Challenge for PYD
Reflections on Methodology
Participant Exclusion
Future research
Participant Selection and Exclusion in a New Zealand Youth Development Programme

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